reviews and a rediscovery

LeRoy Panek, part of the amazing perpetual motion machine behind the Westminster Detective Library, kindly called to my attention a Swedish crime writer I’d never heard of – August Blanche, whose novel The Bandit is crime fiction just like Les Miserables is crime fiction. It’s his only work translated into English and is available only in a tiny handful of libraries, but it’s interesting that of all of his work, this is the one translated – back in the 1870s.

Panek’s website is an amazing project with an ambitious assignment:

It is the mission of the Westminster Detective Library to catalog and make available online all the short fiction dealing with detectives and detection published in the United States before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891).

It’s fascinating – but beware; it’s easy to disappear down a rabbit hole and lose your motivation to do anything else.

Rob Kitchin reviews Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Disgrace (which in the US will carry the title The Absent One) which he feels has strong characters and a nicely-accelerating pace. Shame it requires quite a bit of engineering to maintain suspension of disbelief. He advises readers to leave expectations of plausibility behind when embarking on this reading experience.

He also reviews The Man on the Balcony by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. “There’s little machismo,” he writes, “no maverick geniuses and little in the way of heroics – just the police getting on and doing their jobs.” He appreciates the realism and the rhythm of their storytelling.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path which he found impressive and attractive, though the detailed flashbacks for several characters weakened the forward momentum for him.

Ms. Wordopolis reads Larsson’s The Blood Spilt which, with its vivid characters and scenes, she recommends highly.

At Petrona, Maxine Clarke reviews the first Konrad Sejer novel, finally in translation. She says of Karin Fossum’s In the Darkness that it is tightly plotted and with the kind of deceptively simple story that swirls with inner depths, not as abstract and “fabular” as her more recent books (and I must say, she has given a name to something I had observed but couldn’t put my finger on about this writer’s recent books).

She also writes what may be the first review of the English translation of Sebastian Bergman by by Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt, from Little Brown UK’s new imprint Trapdoor, in which a jaded, troubled criminal psychologist who goes to Vasteras to settle the affairs of his recently-deceased mother and is drawn into a murder investigation.  Though it has pacing that is hardly blistering, the characters and their interactions are the real heart of the mystery. Though it has a tie-in with a television program imported to the UK, Maxine recommends that you turn off the television and enjoy a much more satisfying experience by reading it.

At Euro Crime, she gives Mons Kallentoft’s second mystery, Summertime Death, points for being atmospheric and (mostly) well-constructed, though the ending offers some “???” moments and the continuation of using voices from beyond the grave is a stylistic feature that works no better the second time around.

She also revisits Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Winter’s Longing and Summer’s End, having found the second book in this monumental trilogy quite good. She still struggled to get through the 600 pages, finding it “depressing, leaden and grim,” yet nevertheless fascinating in its highly critical depiction of cold-war Swedish politics. I don’t think I have the stamina to follow her lead, but may take her advice and give Another Time, Another Life a go.

At Mean Streets, ravenpasser thinks Hakan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery is evidence that publishers are rushing unworthy books into translation (opening with “the Scandinavian bandwagon is now a rustbucket”; a bit of a sweeping generalization).

Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction has two reviews in one – Mari Jungstedt’s Dead of Summer and Seppo Jokinen’s Wolves and Angels , both of them worthy police procedurals that have a rich cast of recurring characters who bring to their police work an earnest social conscience. (I enjoyed both of them, too.)

At Past Offences (wonderful blog title – all of the reviews are of books published before 1987) Rich reviews Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Fire Engine that Disappeared, capturing the authors’ wry wit nicely. I was very careful to include all the umlauts, which I did by copying and pasting (being ignorant of how to persuade WordPress to make them, and sadly too lazy to find out. Shocking, I know.)

In the New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio gives Karin Fossum’s The Caller high marks, writing that she is “a grandmaster at the art of psychological terror. Her thoughts are gloomy, her mind is subtle and her writing is extraordinarily supple” in a story that she calls “one of the darkest, most disturbing crime stories you’re likely to read this year.”

Bernadette takes a turn as a reviewer at Euro Crime, (lucky Euro Crime!) reviewing Anna Jansson’s Killer’s Island, one of the new releases from Stockholm Text. She finds the story well-paced, offering a well-balanced mix of police work and personal lives, though some of the relationships among the series characters are a bit more mysterious than they would have been if this were not the eleventh in the series.

And finally, at Reviewing the Evidence, I reviewed Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Blood (titled Midwinter Sacrifice in the UK) and make some cranky comments about the voice of the dead conceit before concluding that it is quite a readable and refreshingly chilly book.

Wolves and Angels by Seppo Jokinen

Thanks to Ice Cold Crime, a small Minnesota publishing house that specializes in translations of Finnish crime fiction  (and which kindly provided me with a review copy), readers in the US have a chance to discover another talented Finnish crime fiction author. Seppo Jokinen has been busy over the years, publishing 17 books in the Sakari Koskinen* series. Though Wolves and Angels  is not the first volume in the series, it won an award for best Finnish mystery of the year in 2002 – and is an excellent place to get acquainted with Sakari Koskinen and his fellow investigators.

When a body is discovered in a wooded area of Tampere**, the police aren’t sure who the dead man is, or how he died, until the results of the autopsy are in: he was suffocated with pillow, and he hadn’t been able to fight back because he had been paralyzed for at least a decade.  That fact leads the police to Wolf House, a group home where several people live lives as independently as their disabilities let them. The dead man, it turns out, is one of the “Fallen Angels,” a group of wheelchair-bound would-be motorcycle gang members. Someone has it in for residents of Wolf House. As the police delve into the victim’s past and the various enemies he has made over the years, another resident is suffocated, and the staff and residents wonder what kind of killer would be targeting people with disabilities.

The novel is long, but (unlike so many these days) never felt padded to me. Instead, it was a well-constructed story in which the police piece together the story of a crime, bit by bit. In many ways, the police procedural is an exploration of workplace culture and interpersonal relationships. Koskinen, a driven cop who has recently been divorced and is trying to piece together a new relationship with his teenage son, supervises a team of detectives and works at smoothing over disputes and overly-pointed barbs. Thanks to some rivalry between his division and patrol officers, he ends up competing against younger, fitter officers in a marathon (which he has been training for, but might have to forfeit in the press of work). He also has a challenging young intern who is managing the office, helpfully rearranging things and causing chaos while the department’s assistant is on maternity leave. Milla the intern nearly steals the show with her perky optimism and a knitted cap that she habitually wears that has a point on it that waves about like an expressive antenna.

The plot is nicely convoluted, the characters are vividly drawn, and the subject of living with disabilities is handled well. The members of Fallen Angels are, well, hardly angels, but we discover along with the police what it’s like to have a disability and live in a world full of obstacles and missed opportunities. It’s an absorbing book with a likable protagonist  who I hope to see again.

Praise is also due to Owen Witesman, whose translation is so good it completely disappears. I am looking forward to reading more of his work, too. His translation of Leena Lehtolainen’s My First Murder, the first in  the Maria Kallio series, is due for publication in late 2012.

*No relation to a certain American fictional detective named Anni Koskinen.

**I spend a little time in Tampere many years ago and thought it was a terrific city. We were able to buy really practical rain gear for our children (it rained for two weeks straight) at one of the best second-hand stores ever, and the public library was lovely – and they served ice cream!